Tis the season for chatting on the phone with family, friends and… brands? Well, perhaps you’re cooking your first turkey and struggling with step-by-step details, like:

Do I baste now, or after the skin has browned further?

And while you originally placed your smartphone on the counter for recipe reference, it now seems like a great source of culinary salvation from an actual expert.

We know that type of novice turkey chef exists from Thanksgiving through Christmas thanks to Butterball. The poultry giant has shown how the human voice is more than a side dish to digital in the customer journey, literally offering customers a lifeline for crucial decision-making during holiday meal preparation. The company debuted the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line in 1981, and expects to have assisted more than four million cooks by the end of the 2017 holiday season.

Each year from Nov. 1 through Dec. 24, a team of 50 turkey specialists — food stylists, dieticians, and home economics teachers recruited through word of mouth — counsel nervous cooks nationwide in a fun, seasonal gig. The 1-800-BUTTERBALL support line fields an average of 10,000 questions on Thanksgiving Day alone, and it offers advice in Spanish and English. And like many leading brands, Butterball’s customer care extends beyond the phone to offer support via email, text and online chat.

Butterball Turkey Talkline

There’s plenty more data to unstuff when it comes to Butterball’s direct care. As reported by The Atlantic, it had 120,000 individual interactions with turkey preparers during the 2016 holidays. What’s intriguing is how those numbers broke out by channel: Butterball got 15,280 questions by email, roughly 8,200 by text, nearly 4,000 via chat and more than 92,600 phone calls. Ninety-thousand calls! In other words, 77 percent of Butterball’s customers prefer the personal touch of talk over digital-only channels. (The brand, to be clear, is not a customer; I am simply wowed by its strategy.)

So, in an era where most marketers are focused on messaging, chatbots and artificial intelligence, the narrative of “consumers only prefer digital channels” doesn’t quite stand up. So the underlying question is: When do consumers prefer the human connection that voice provides?

The Role of Human Conversations in a First-Rate Customer Experience

Butterball’s success story highlights an emerging, counterintuitive trend—the smartphone is increasingly driving phone calls instead of discouraging them. And it makes a lot of sense. Think about the turkey chef, working away in the kitchen, keeping track of several things at once, and suddenly encountering a problem that puts the succulent quality of his or her turkey masterpiece at risk. In such a moment of need, you know what’s not very far away? The smartphone—where much-needed information is available via digital help centers, search engines or social media sites. But when the cook has a particularly tricky question, needs emotional reassurance or is weighing a complex decision, the fastest path to the right answer is usually a live conversation with a human expert.

And this phenomenon is not all about holiday turkeys. Butterball’s cross-channel, experts-driven case study can easily apply to marketers in verticals that entail considered purchases (complex, critical, emotional or high-cost decisions) like home services, automotive, financial services and travel. Digital platforms are perfect for straightforward questions (checking account balances on a mobile phone), low-importance decisions (searching Yelp reviews to pick a restaurant), or search-and-find queries (finding a brand-name pair of jeans on sale). But when consumers need to make considered purchases, the importance of the human conversation is paramount.

The hands-free convenience of voice is winning over a world addicted to consuming information on the go, whether walking down the street or driving in traffic. That is why it’s critical to consider how voice fits alongside digital in perfecting the customer experience, which was the top concern for 72% of marketers surveyed by Forrester last year. And Butterball has clearly nailed a successful omni-channel approach by offering a personal touch during exchanges about defrosting, trimming and brining a turkey.  

It won’t be long before consumers are asking voice assistants such an Amazon Echo, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana for considered-purchase assistance. My company, Invoca, just wrapped up research where we surveyed 1,000 U.S. adults who own in-home voice assistant devices. We found that 58 percent are using voice to accomplish tasks they once did through typing or swiping, and one in four people said they are calling businesses more often. Additionally, our cross-client data showed a 33 percent increase in the average number of calls per customer, per year, from 2014 to 2016.

What’s more, earlier this year, ReportLinker found that 37 percent of smartphone owners use their device primarily for making actual phone calls, easily beating out texting (26 percent) and surfing the Internet (16 percent).

Butterball can attest to such findings. What’s going to be fascinating in the next few years is whether the idea of a smartphone nearby the oven will be irrelevant, with the overly tasked turkey chef instead directing questions/commands to the kitchen smart speaker:

Google, call Butterball now!

Image credit: The Atlantic

Gregg Johnson

Posted by Gregg Johnson

Gregg is a seasoned digital marketing and SaaS leader, with over fifteen years of extensive experience bringing products to market in emerging categories, leading large teams, and working with the world’s best enterprise brands. Most recently, Gregg led Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s social marketing product line, where he integrated $1 billion of M&A investments into the Salesforce product portfolio. Prior to that he drove product strategy and development for Salesforce Chatter, helping define the nascent category of enterprise social networking and rolling out one of Salesforce's most successful products. Earlier in his career, Gregg was a consultant at Boston Consulting Group and worked in sales, marketing and product roles at several startups. He graduated from Stanford University and holds a Master’s degree from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and an MBA from the Wharton School of Business.

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